Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reflections on the Power of Wealth

Another Facebook post has resulted in a comment I want to preserve and protect before it vanishes into the Facebook archives -- which in the future will be known as the Swamp of No Return. Here is the link.

In response to that link to the Center for Public Integrity citing the Koch Brothers' exercise in the power of wealth, my web buddy Brian posted a complementary piece about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as reported by MSNBC. I suspect it was intended as a rebuttal since Brian has strong libertarian tendencies. But I was pleased to have an intelligent response and the following poured out (including my non sequitur) beginning with his comment.

Brian -- It's doubtful that anyone attaches more strings to their philanthropy than does the Gates Foundation, which has actually been quite effective in changing the face of education across the nation, good or bad. [Here is a link to Dissent along those lines.]
The cost of K–12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum? Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck. 
John -- There is a delightful irony that MSNBC is the source of an op-ed criticizing Bill Gates, whose name is synonymous with Microsoft -- the same Microsoft for which the MS in MSNBC stands. Love it. It makes me wonder if some permutation of future broadcasting might result in a KBFOX network. This echoes the historic example of Andrew Carnegie, whom we have discussed elsewhere, whose largess is responsible for a multitude of libraries and other civic assets across the country. What would the world be if anything ever happened to Carnegie Hall?

[I read somewhere that Horowitz was so idiosyncratic that he refused to play anywhere except on his own piano, and that it had to be placed in exactly the right spot on the stage of Carnegie Hall any time he deigned to appear there. He was such a prima donna that the floor of Carnegie Hall stage had a permanent mark so that Horowitz' piano could always be properly located!] [Sorry for the distraction.]

Getting back to the links, both Dissent and CPI point to the same phenomenon, as you point out. Together they once again underscore what appears to be a truism about economics as old as written history -- perhaps even earlier -- that the more power becomes concentrated at the top, the more likely those who hold the strings of control can pull them any way they choose.

It's hardly a matter of morality, since that control swings both ways, with evil at one end and good at the other. The spectrum has monarchs and autocrats at one end and populist democracy at the other, and in both cases the results are all over the place. I can think of more examples of autocratic controls scoring better than populism. Populism tends to be too provincial to see across mountains, oceans, and barriers of language, race, tribes, ethnicity or religion.

Given the option, I'll stick with the rich and powerful, but rather than throw all the bums out, I'll lean toward the ones that come closest to where I want to go. In this case, if the choice is between Gates and Koch, you already know where I stand, even though the points about power over-reach are valid in both cases. The business about mayoral control and pipelines versus programs is disturbing, but it's a case of picking which poison is less toxic.

As I read one idea kept drumming in the background. It was the drum of Piketty -- the income gap -- which has passed the point of "haves and have-nots" to an extreme more like "those who have more than enough and those who haven't enough to survive." The unrest in Ferguson is related. In many ways the unrest in the Middle East is related (oil socialism versus "--???--"). The Ebola epidemic is related. The struggle of oligarchs from Afghanistan to Ukraine is related. And once again, the list is endless. Income gaps = civil unrest.
For some reason I'm still haunted by something else I read yesterday, the story behind the publication of Dr. Zhivago as told by a brilliant young woman, Frances Stonor Saunders, whom I didn't know about but who will now be added to my list of bright young people to keep track of. For some reason this discussion of power and influence and my memories of the cold war seem related, but I haven't quite connected all the dots.
Here is the link if you have the time.

As I write, this last link remains disconnected from the theme of the other discussion. But somehow the tensions of the cold war in which Boris Pasternak was forced to live are not too distant from the tensions that sincere people of good will face today. The central problem of history continues to be how best to resolve conflict. All the numbers tell us that history is moving in the right direction. The actual numbers of casualties of war have declined over the centuries. The size and duration of disease epidemics is moving in the right direction. Medical science and medicine is improving life expectancy. And despite durable pockets of poverty the developing world appears to be slowly but surely partaking the fruits of progress. But even as I write the specter of another war is taking shape in the Middle East as the fallout of the post-colonial and post-WWII periods brings that part of the world to a new boiling point. 

Simultaneously, the threats of climate change are as threatening to the future of the planet as an approaching asteroid, but hopes for a meaningful global response remains as unpredictable (and unlikely) as the Second Coming. 

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